New York — Publishers laughed two years ago when a group of writers proposed founding a labor union. But they aren't laughing now. In a two-day founding convention recently, delegates representing more than 1 ,500 American writers formed a National Writers Union (NWU).
The NWU aims to represent free-lance journalists, fiction and nonfiction book writers, poets, and others, and ''to promote and protect (their) rights, interests, and economic advancement.''
The union is the result of efforts begun at the American Writers Congress in 1981 to organize writers in an effective group to improve rights and working conditions. The union was born May 1, the international Labor Day.
Despite the public image, there is nothing glamorous about the conditions under which most writers work. In recent years, while the publishing industry has posted 20 percent profits on the average, writers have seen their real incomes shrink.
According to a recent survey by the American Society of Journalists and Authors, pay scales at major publications have declined an average of 30 percent since 1960. Another report found that the typical published writer earns less than $3,000 a year from writing alone.
Existing writers' groups such as PEN (an international organization of poets, playwrights, editors, essayists, and novelists), the Authors Guild, and regional groups like the New York Area Media Alliance have been unable to improve writers' living standards. Despite their intentions, they do not have the power to bargain collectively with an employer and enforce mutual agreements.
Writers' unions aren't new. They have existed in England, Germany, Japan, India, and Canada for decades. Until now, America was one of the few advanced countries without a writers' union.
Book writers and free-lance journalists, who form the bulk of the membership in the new American union, have been largely ignored by past union organizing efforts. The Newspaper Guild, in fact, took a dim view of attempts to organize free-lance journalists, who were seen as competition for full-time staff members at Guild newspapers. This hostility may explain why a weekly newspaper like the Village Voice in New York, very dependent on free-lance contributions, was eventually organized by District Council 65 of the United Automobile Workers (UAW).
Union members say the NWU is more than a union for economic gain. ''Our purpose is to join together in solidarity, to change the publishing industry,'' says Howard Rodman, a New York delegate to the founding convention.
The union plans to offer its members information resources, health and life insurance, and libel insurance. Libel insurance is an important matter to many American writers, as publishers in recent years have tended to force them, in book and newspaper contracts, to accept full responsibility for the legal consequences of publication. A membership data bank is being assembled to provide information on work and publishing conditions at newspapers, magazines, and publishing houses around the country. The union is also working to obtain discounts for members who wish to purchase home computers. The NWU aims to be a full-service union.
''This is the first time a writers' union has been successfully formed in this country,'' says Andrea Eagan, president of the NWU. ''It will make a profound difference for every writer in the United States.''
Indeed, the union's first contract agreement, with Mother Jones, a liberal news magazine, sets strict standards of payment and treatment for all writers. Among other things, it raises the minimum article assignment rates from $750 to
The NWU has begun a national effort to attract new members. ''We want to double membership by the end of the year,'' says Jeff Weinstein, East Coast representative on the union's executive board.
According to Mr. Weinstein, the NWU plans to establish new local chapters in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Atlanta. It has existing chapters in New York, Boston, Washington, San Francisco, and 10 other regions. Some union officials say that membership could reach 20,000 in a few years.
The NWU has received support from several powerful groups within the American labor movement, including the UAW, the Communications Workers of America, and the National Lawyers Guild.
The NWU has been endorsed by a number of prominent American writers and celebrities, including E.L. Doctorow, Benjamin Stein, I.F. Stone, Pete Seeger, and Studs Terkel.